What is “biodiversity”?
see Faith, Daniel P., (2021) “Biodiversity”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Here is an extract from my entry in the Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Biodiversity:
“The term “biodiversity” – a contraction of “biological diversity” – logically will reflect some notion of diversity, or living variation. Thus, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, article 2; http://www.cbd.int/sp/) provides this definition: “the variability among living organisms from all sources…This includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”.”
So, why is such living variation in itself valuable? Unfortunately, discussions on the meaning, and value, of “biodiversity” – a term invented around 1985 – reflect the jumble of different uses of the term, ranging from being very specific (e.g., equating it with a single species), very general (e.g., equating it with the “fabric of life”), or somewhat tangential (e.g., equating it with any ecological factor relevant to ecosystems).
To pin down the core value of “biodiversity” as living variation, my Handbook entry turns to what I call the “pre-history” of “biodiversity” (roughly, the history of the term before it was invented):
“Haskins (1974: 646) summarised an important discussion meeting where participants called for “an Ethic of Biotic Diversity in which such diversity is viewed as a value in itself and is tied in with the survival and fitness of the human race”. Haskins (1974: 646) warned, “Plants and animals that may now be regarded as dispensable may one day emerge as valuable resources” and that extinction “threatens to narrow down future choices for mankind”. Roush (1977: 9) similarly argued that “diversity increases the possibility of future benefits” (for review, see Farnham 1997). IUCN’s (1980: section 3) arguments for the conservation of diversity (referring to “the range of genetic material found in the world’s organisms”) echoed Haskins: “we may learn that many species that seem dispensable are capable of providing important products, such as pharmaceuticals, or are vital parts of life-support systems on which we depend.” ”
(for more pre-history see my blog at Biodiversity and contemporary evosystem services )
This points to what we call “biodiversity option value” – basically, the benefit biodiversity provides to us now in ensuring possible benefits for future generations.
For recent commentary on the confusions about such values, see my paper in Ambio: Biodiversity’s option value: A comment on Maier (2018) .
For recent assessment of these benefits in policy context, see Davies et al. (2018), in the The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Regional and subregional assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services for Asia and the Pacific.
The pre-history of “biodiversity” also is informative about another way in which variety is valuable – insurance value. ‘Biodiversity option value’ refers to the idea that living variation is valuable because we cannot predict which elements (e.g., species) will provide uses/benefits in the future; ‘biodiversity insurance value’ refers to the idea that living variation is valuable because we cannot predict which elements will help maintain stability/integrity in the face of future changes. Read more about this topic here. Also see
Faith, Daniel P., (2021) “Biodiversity”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
see also the IPBES values assessment
see also my review of the book Defending Biodiversity
More papers on biodiversity here
Davies, K., A. et al. (2018) Chapter 2 in M. Karki and S. Sonali, editors. Nature’s contributions to people and quality of life. IPBES, 2018: Regional and subregional assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services for Asia and the Pacific. Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Bonn, Germany.
Faith DP (2017) A general model for biodiversity and its value. in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Biodiversity. (Eds. J Garson, A Plutynski, S Sarkar)
Faith DP (2018) Biodiversity’s option value: A comment on Maier (2018). Ambio. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-018-1069-0
full pdf Biodiversity’s option value: A comment on Maier (2018)
Farnham, T. J. (1997) Saving Nature’s Legacy: Origins of the Idea of Biological Diversity, Yale University Press, 276 pages.
Francis (2015) Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis: On Care for Our Common Home [English language version]. The Vatican.
Haskins, C. (1974) “Scientists Talk of the Need for Conservation and an Ethic of Biotic Diversity to Slow Species Extinction”, Science, 184: 646-47. DOI: 10.1126/science.184.4137.646
IUCN (1980) World Conservation Strategy: living resource conservation for sustainable development. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
Roush, G. (1977) “Why save diversity?” Nature Conservancy News 21: 9-12.
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